Other, similar postings followed. The content they posted was quoted verbatim from the Church of Scientology home page at http://www.scientology.org. Followups typically consisted of a repost of the entire article, with a single supportive word appended, like "Great!".
When an article is posted to Usenet, one copy of the post is held on the local server. A news server has a list of others that it connects to: each second server checks with the first one to see what's new and picks up the posts it doesn't yet have. In this way an article is propagated to the sites downstream.
There's always a lot of traffic coming to and from a server: Usenet is huge. At present, a full newsfeed constitutes a couple of gigabytes a day. Add to that the fact that the network news transfer protocol (nntp) is not very efficient, and you understand why ISPs and big companies have to have dedicated Internet connections for their news feed. These are expensive. When they are overloaded the newsfeed itself falls over, and access to Usenet is - temporarily at least - denied.
The practice of posting identical articles to Usenet newsgroups is called spamming, in homage to a Monty Python sketch set in a cafe which serves spam with everything. Because it concentrates on a single newsgroup, the a.r.s incident is termed a vertical spam. A horizontal spam would post the same message to all the newsgroups (at last count, there were nearly twenty thousand), regardless of whether or not it was appropriate.
Like the pressed luncheon meat whose name it shares, spamming is considered by many people to be in extremely bad taste. How exactly did this spam come about?
According to Scientologist literature, clears have 135 IQ, radiant health, magnetic personalities, creative imaginations and amazing vitality. Scientologists are dedicated to "clearing the world". Recruits, typically brought in for a personality test, are "audited," meaning they undergo a form of counselling designed to help them go clear.
Looked at in this way, Dianetics is just what it claims to be - a form of self-improvement. But Scientology itself goes much further. Scientologists believe our souls are those of "thetans," or extraterrestrial beings. We are trillions of years old and have been reincarnated many times. Once clear, Scientologists can attain the state of "operating thetans" (OTs), meaning they can have out-of-body experiences.
Put like that, Scientology sounds merely eccentric: almost appealingly dotty, in its way. The Church numbers John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Tom Cruise among its members, lending it credibility. Yet the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup, founded by a critic and fuelled by vigorous opposition to the Church and its teachings, attracts nearly 3000 postings each week. Posters have dedicated giant Web sites to archiving material that is critical of Scientology. What has the Church done to arouse such noisy debate?
However the critics of Scientology go much further than those of other religions. Many people claim Scientology is nothing more than an exploitative cult of mind control.
Specifically, ex-Scientologists like Jonathan Caven-Atack in the UK allege that the Church recruits new members by deliberately disorienting its prospects in order to induce euphoric states, false memories and dependency. Once people are psychologically dependent upon Scientology, Atack claims the Church exploits them financially by charging high prices for training courses and by pressuring members to liquidate their assets and to devote all their energies to Church activities.
He quotes Hubbard as saying "Advanced Courses [in Scientology] are the most valuable service on the planet. Life insurance, houses, cars, stocks, bonds, college savings, all are transitory and impermanent ..." The implication is that Scientologists should be made to sacrifice all their material possessions for advancement in the church.
Elsewhere Atack claims Hubbard said: "When somebody enrols, consider he or she has joined up for the duration of the universe - never permit an 'open-minded' approach ... If they enrolled, they're aboard, and if they're aboard, they're here on the same terms as the rest of us - win or die in the attempt. Never let them be half-minded about being Scientologists ... When Mrs Pattycake comes to us to be taught, turn that wandering doubt in her eye into a fixed, dedicated glare ... The proper instruction attitude is '... We'd rather have you dead than incapable.'"
Among the most serious charges made against the church are allegations of human rights abuses, including false imprisonment, sleep deprivation as a brainwashing technique and the existence of labour camps where disobedient members of the Church are punished.
If there is a unifying philosophy here, it is "Think for yourself." Nothing could be more antithetical to the stereotypical nethead psyche than a Church which appears to enforce unthinking obedience. Even so, it's unlikely that Scientology would have caused quite the furore it has done if it had not attempted to silence its critics.
Rumours of such activities extend far beyond the net itself: the Church is said to have tried to discredit those who have written unfavourable books about it. Authors George Malko, Paulette Cooper, Cyril Vosper, and Robert Kaufman claim they have been harassed by the Church in the courts and out of it, up to and including threats of physical violence and being framed for crimes they did not commit.
But the light-speed propagation of information on the Internet has made it easier for the Church's critics to mobilise themselves and to communicate with each other.
The first incident that raised the Internet's ire was when the Church sent out unauthorised cancel messages for a.r.s postings. Officials claimed that the name of the group broke their copyright. The matter came to a head last year when secret Church material (about New Era Dianetics for Operating Thetans) was published on the net. The basic premise of the Internet has always been that information should be propagated: Scientology plays its cards very close to its chest and never publishes its higher-level teachings openly. It described the posters' actions as "copyright terrorism" and responded in kind.
For example, in August CNN reported that: "Arnie Lerma's home office was raided by US marshalls accompanied by lawyers and officials from the Church of Scientology. While the marshalls stood by, Lerma's computer was dismantled and carried away." Dennis Erlich, Larry Wollersheim and Bob Penny have been subjected to similar tactics. The Church has lawsuits pending against a number of the people who were involved: Ron Newman has published details on his Web site at http://www.cybercom.net/~rnewman/scientology/home.html.
The Church also persuaded a Finnish man to relinquish the name of a poster who had taken the precaution of using the anonymous remailer, anon.penet.fi. Since the whole point of the remailer was to protect the poster's identity, this event caused great bitterness in the wider net community.
The a.r.s spam, then, is just the latest battle in an ongoing war. Scientology and the net are an irresistible force meeting an immovable object: two wholly incompatible world views going head to head in a confined space.
The result: irony. The church's critics have mounted an e-mail petition calling on the Church to cease spamming and to disavow the activity. the defenders of free speech are asking for a bit of quiet.
According to Henry Bartnik, the community relations officer for the Church of Scientology in Sydney, only one person is responsible for responding to a.r.s on the Church's behalf. That person is Andrew Milne, a writer working for the Church in Los Angeles. Bartnik doubts whether Milne is behind the spam: "He's too savvy," he said. "It's not a very cool thing to do, is it?" The Church in Australia has not been very heavily involved with the newsgroup. "At times we've looked at it, but it's too noisy," Bartnik said. "A lot of the material on there is so facetious, it's hardly worth responding to."
He believes the Church comes under attack because it is "in the public eye. Celebrities who are Scientologists seem to be mentioned a lot: people seem to respond badly to that, as if we're using the celebrities.
"On the Internet the biggest degree of opposition happened after the copyright violations. Dennis Erlich had been communicating on the Internet for some years, and his opinions aren't very favourable to the Church.
"Still, our own creed allows people to express their opinions freely. But then he got hold of some of our sacred materials and published them on the net. We were faced with a crisis of integrity: if we just let this go, it would show that we didn't really care about our own faith. So the Church simply lodged a complaint. We issued a legal warning to Erlich. The action by the US marshalls was proposed by them. As somebody said, I don't think the marshalls would conduct that sort of raid just because someone asked them to."
Irony upon irony. For the volume of traffic on a.r.s - at last count the number of spams had exceeded 20,000, or more than 10 percent of all posts ever made to a.r.s. - is clearly not intended to stimulate discussion, but to silence all dissent.
Rachel Chalmers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Sydney writer. Her uncle became involved with Scientology shortly before he vanished without trace.
This article is placed here with the author's permission, now that the issue of the magazine is out of print.